Engineering and Women

>> Saturday, November 23, 2013

So, someone I know on facebook posted a link to an ad by GoldieBlox, touting the notion that girls don't have to be stuck with "girl toys" that don't do anything and doom them to particular life roles/preclude them from certain professions. It's a cute ad, but I'm afraid I feel they still don't get the concept.

Here's a quote from their "about" page: "By tapping into girls' strong verbal skills, our story + construction set bolsters confidence in spatial skills while giving young inventors the tools they need to build and create amazing things." So, by tapping into a stereotypical quality girls are supposed to have, you think you can help them overcome a stereotypical deficiency.

But stereotypes are the problem. Oh, not the whole problem. It is certainly possible, even probable that, overall, more girls are genetically predisposed to verbal skills over spatial reckoning, etc.  So what? First of all, since neither motor skills or spatial reckoning is my strength, I can say that the lack thereof hardly precludes becoming an engineer, excelling at math, excelling at physics, and making a career in that field, because, hey, I did it.

More importantly, what is "generally" true doesn't mean diddly to an individual. There are any number of dead-eye female pilots who have spatial reckoning (and generally other aspects of science and or engineering like Eileen Collins, the first female Space Shuttle commander) or engineering intuition, or math skills out the wazoo. Each girl, like every boy out there, is an individual, who might be dead on the money on some stereotypical feature and blowing the curve on the next.

The problem isn't the toys. It's what you hear and what you see and what you're shown growing up. It's the level and tenor of the expectations your parents and teachers and mentors and even peers have that discourage girls from pursuing engineering and science and math. If you don't change that, nothing changes.

Because, here's the thing. If you find "girl" toys too limiting for your little princess, there isn't a thing in the world that keeps you from getting her building blocks (they come in pink, too)  or robots or tinkertoys or trains or remote control cars or science kits. Getting her those things won't stop her from being your princess any more than Barbies and babydolls and Hello Kitty stuff will make her a princess if that's not what she wants to be. Not only can you do it now, you could ALWAYS do it.

I'm a parent. I buy the things my kids show an interest in. My son likes wooden puzzles and Legos and cars and blankets. He likes stuffed animals, too, but his sister steals them (he steals her blankets so it's all good). His sister loves dolls and tea sets and cars and figurines of any kind and stuffed animals. I've bought her puzzles, but she's not interested in them though she completely conquered a set of latches in seconds. They both inherited 9000 books and I keep buying them more though neither will let me read to them.

I will continue to buy my children things they show an interest in, not worried about gender or stigmas because, in this house, there's no stigma if my son plays with a doll or wants to get his toenails painted (he does, if I'm painting nails). There's no stigma if my daughter plays with cars or Legos - why would there be? And that is how I'll raise my children, how I raised my eldest daughter. I will tell them, and absolutely believe it and show it in word and deed, that nothing is automatically beyond them, that the only limits on them are in their talent and the limits they set themselves.

I won't make a big deal out of it because I don't have to. I just have to keep from getting in their way. No one had to tell me I could do complex math as well or better than anyone else because it never occurred to me that I couldn't. No one had ever told me I couldn't so why would I think so? No one had ever imposed any restrictions on my abilities or told me I had no business learning X subject or Y subject so I grew up figuring out what I was good at and wasn't good at by myself, through exposure. I never had teacher say, "I don't think a girl like you belongs in physics" any more than I had a parent who said, "Girls should stick to home ec or typing." Actually, I think my mother wanted me to take both subjects, but I stunk at them. But no one stopped me from taking science or math or engineering or anything else I wanted. I do know women, many of them engineers now, who DID have that happen, with parents or college professors or boyfriends, etc.

I was able to find my own limits because no one imposed their own limits, or their perceptions of my limits, on me. And that, boys and girls, is the key, I think. You can't make a boy good at math because he's supposed to be any more than making him play football and learn kung fu will keep him from being a drag queen if that's what he's got a hankering to do (as many a homophobic parent has discovered). People set their own limits and gravitate to the things they excel at or enjoy. If you haven't set any limits, they may still aim small. Or a direction you never saw. But there's nothing wrong with wanting to be a kindergarten teacher or a nurse or an oral hygienist. Nothing wrong with being a drag queen either if it makes you and others happy.

It's when we set preconceived limits upon our children that we limit their potential. If we tell our girls over and over that girls just can't do math, chances are, when they take algebra, they'll be convinced it's beyond them, whether it really was or not. If we tell our children that they can't ever go to college because they're too poor and will have no choice but to work, those children might very well never even try for opportunities intended for kids just like them because they've decided it's hopeless. If we treat children who are Latino (and may struggle with English especially at first) or black as if one couldn't expect much from them, they will likely fulfill our expectations, even if those expectations are unvoiced.

There are many who believe children from the far east are inherently smarter. I don't think so. Their culture values education and parents routinely make sacrifices and have huge (perhaps too huge) expectations of their children. That has its own issues but instilling unnecessary limitations isn't one of them (though there is notably a difference, even now, in what's expected from boys and girls in those cultures). I think this difference in emphasis and expectations is the key to their relative success.

You want your child to fulfill their potential? Buy them toys and games and books and encourage activities that excite, interest, and challenge them. Not you, not other people's children, but them, your children, the individuals. Their imagination might take off with building sets or action sets. It might be dolls and doll houses. It might be puzzles and physical toys. Talk to them, get to know them, encourage their interests and strengths. Find what each individual child responds well to and what encourages those children in subjects or fields that might have not interested them before.

But, whatever you do, don't get in their way. Don't ever let your own limitations or perceptions of their limitation get in the way of their succeeding where you never expected it. Kids can do that, more often than you think.

If we'd just let them.

At least, that's how I see it.


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